Medieval Society Roving Marks

By Andy
Home > Articles > Medieval Society Roving Marks

Imagine if you will a park football field containing Pele, Sir Stanley Matthews, Brian Clough and a whole host of other famous faces from the footballing world, all getting together for a quick jumpers for goal posts style kick about. No doubt it would get world wide media coverage with numerous TV crews print, press and no doubt a huge crowd of spectators. Imagine further still if they invited you to play and at half time and full time were willing to share the various stories and anecdotes from their footballing lives over an orange or two. Well on Sunday I found myself in what can only be described as the archery equivalent, a field somewhere in Berkshire filled with some of the biggest names in English Longbow archery, Ron Palmer, Chris Boyton, Bill Terry, Roger Collis, Alan Ridge, Gary Bourne, the list goes on and on. It's an often used cliché but what these people don't know about Traditional English archery really isn't worth knowing, but and here comes the sad part, mention any of these names to your average man in the street and they will have never heard of them, even more disappointing is many in the wider archery community would also look at you blankly. 

We had been given two invites for the Medieval Societies roving marks shoot, a very exclusive shoot indeed, limited to 60 archers and strictly invite only. Getting yourself a place requires you to know somebody of influence at the society and as luck would have it we knew just the man and he invited us along to meet some of the great and the good in the archery arena. Even so getting more than two places was definitely out so it was just Steve and I who set off early on Sunday morning to this most exclusive of shoots. We arrived early to be met by Alan Ridge who invited us in to the hospitality tent for a cup of tea where he began to regale us with stories of the societies work on TV and film, this was of course a theme for the day, everybody has a fascinating story to tell and Alan was possibly the pick of the bunch with his tales of Strong Bow adverts and Richard Burton. As time went on car after car arrived each time depositing yet more and bigger names from the world of Medieval and Longbow archery. 

Alan with a black memorial arrow

But all these great names, faces and personalities were here for just one thing, to shoot. Roving marks is a style steeped in history, the stories tell of it as being used as a means of practice on the way to and from church as part of the regular practice of every man and boy in medieval England, regardless of whether that is true or not it is certainly true that it was a way in which people used to sharpen their long range shots. A number of marks, stone pillars with a cross and coat of arms attached, are spread across a large open field at various distances, archers then shoot at the marks from a longer distance for those with heavy bows and a slightly shorter one for archers using lighter bows. However this is archery medieval style and when we say heavy we really mean it, Steve and I took a small arsenal with us but settled on two of Ron Palmer's finest, a 65# with tapered laminations and a 90# monster. Once everybody had arrived we gathered to begin the day, as this is the Medieval Society there was a customary nod to the past, a trumpet solo from David Edwards " Ich hatt' einen Kameraden", played on one of his own creations, a trumpet the exact replica of one used by Oliver Cromwell's herald, this was followed by a volley of black whistling arrows shot by each member of the society in memory of past members of the Society.  

With formalities and a fitting tribute finished we began the shoot, a notable guest was asked to pick the first mark, with a number to choose from it seemed an easy start was in order as we looked north to the first mark. The marks are a maximum of 10 score yards, in layman's terms that's a full 200 yards and while this first one wasn't that far it was no easy task to get the arrows the full distance. This first mark required 3 arrows to be launched in to orbit, I was using the 65# bow and some rather heavy arrows but I gave it a good go, trying to get back to and then a little past my normal anchor point. Part of the fun of this style of shooting is launching the arrow high in to the air, these big bows spit the arrows out at some considerable speed and once it's off keeping track of it especially as it drops back to earth and into the horizon is tricky especially with 60 or more archers sending arrows high in to the sky at the same time. Once all three arrows had been sent on their way it was time to move forward to let those with smaller bows have a go, the term smaller however does them a disservice as we only moved forward 40 or 50 yards and these bows were more than capable of reaching the mark.

Gary with one of the marksA short walk followed to see how we had done, on approaching the mark the floor was literally covered in arrows, thankfully mine were rather distinctive and easy to find so didn't take too long to collect up, on the other hand none were close enough to score. 12 points are awarded for being closest to the mark, 5 points are awarded to any arrows which are within one bow length from the mark and then 3 for any which are within two bow lengths. Now we were close to one of the marks we could see them in more detail, each one has the crest of one of the society members, this looked fantastic and served to remind us of the rich history of the society and it's members. Once the arrows had been scored it was time to find the next mark, this honour is given to the archer who was the nearest to the last mark shot, a quick scan of the area and we were off again this time heading West, this time a longer one. 

During the course of the morning as we shot from mark to mark I started to understand what the great joy of this style of shooting was. Mark Twain once wrote that golf is a good walk spoilt, but for me shooting roving marks is a good walk enhanced, one thing that I love about archery is the social aspect, few sports allow you to compete on an even footing with everybody from all ages and abilities. You can stand side by side with somebody of a totally different ability which when you consider it is a rare thing indeed when it comes to sport, especially competitive sport. With roving marks this is all the more fun as there is plenty of time for that social aspect as you walk from mark to mark and then spend time looking for arrows. All of us had that common enjoyment and so conversations were never forced as we swapped stories of archery but also drifted off in to other aspects of our lives. This was all the more enjoyable as we had access to some of the great minds in the archery world and I went from conversation to conversation learning more and meeting people who I had heard about for years. One particular highlight was when it was announced that one of the marks, the archers rest, hid a secret stash of sherry and sloe gin, the later having been made by Gary, and we proceeded with plastic cups in hand to have a very civilised and traditional break. It was getting close to lunch and a shoot which involves heavy bows requires a break somewhere in the middle, so a couple of marks which would take us back to the hospitality tent were picked and we shot our way back. 

Once we got back to the tent I looked back at where we had been, we had shot 10 marks which at an average of 180 yards each was just over a miles worth of shooting and walking. There are in fact not that many places capable of hosting a roving marks shoot for this reason as you need a fair amount of space, but we had plenty here and had not yet shot a quarter of the marks on offer. Bill Yeo had sacrificed a days shooting to help out in the kitchen and he and the team of ladies had provided a fantastic lunch for us to enjoy, I managed to grab Bill for a chat and we swapped stories of our time shooting in France. 

After lunch we were off again, this time to the south west, a mark set in front of some woods. Steve and I had swapped bows at lunch time so I was now shooting a 90# bow, a little harder but I was now able to get the full distance. You may have noticed that as yet I haven't mentioned my score, that's because I didn't have one. Points on a roving mark are hard to come by, it is a literal case of hit or miss and the 65# bow wasn't man enough for the job. Not that you need that much power but I tend to use a heavy arrow for field shooting which was sapping energy the bow was producing. But I wasn't a long way off and came very close a couple of times just a few inches short. However that's not really the joy of roving marks, at a target or field competition not scoring gets you down, but here we were having too much fun shooting and chatting with people to be too concerned on how we were doing. We continued shooting in to the afternoon completing another 10 marks before heading back to base for a cup of tea, some cake and yet more fantasic stories. It had been a wonderful days worth of shooting, catching up with old friends and making more, the weather had also been kind and held off until the last mark had been shot and we were safely back in the tent with a tea in hand. I didn't score a single point all day, but that was of little consequence as the day had been such excellent fun. 

If you ever get the chance to try a roving marks shoot I would suggest you jump at the chance, I had a great day which was enhanced by the wonderful characters in attendance, thanks to all the member of the Medieval Society, in particular Bill and Gary for the initial invitation and also to Alan for taking the time to make us feel so very welcome.


Roving Marks

Steve's Addendum

It is not normal for both of us to write the same article and whilst Andy has covered the shoot there were a few points I wanted to make. The Medieval Society should not be confused with any other re enactment group, they do perform for audiences and for cameras but everything they do, although a tribute to the past is in fact real. The Society was formed in 1963, there have been new comers and sadly some of the originals have passed away, however one member has been at the helm as chancellor from day 1 and that's John Asmus, even after all this time the rascal hasn't lost his touch and waltzed away with 1st place. 

These guys have studied the English martial arts of bow, sword and quarterstaff and are as adept at them as the original exponents of 600 years ago. Weather it be a lance on horse back at the quintain or a warbow at 240 yards these guys don't just look the part they deliver the goods. The founder John Waller was in fact the head of interpretation at the Royal Armouries and anyone who watches the history channel will have seen several series of programmes presented by the military historian and weapons expert Mike Loads. Mike got his start here with the Medieval Society and despite now living in America is still a member of the group. Robert Hardy is renown for his books on the English Longbow and is a member of the society. Chris Boyton, Bowyer, is also a keen horseman and is honing his skills with the aim of shooting as well on horseback as he aspires to on "dry land", he performs demonstrations with a lance both at home and abroad. Gary Bourne is skilled with not only a bow but a quarterstaff too........ I could go on but by now I am sure you get the picture of the extraordinary qualities each of the members posses.

Steve sends one high in to the sky

The Roving Mark is just one facet of this groups quiver full of skills and whilst shooting from one mark to the next I was chatting with old friends and meeting new ones, unlike most of the shoots I go to I didn't feel I was competing even though we were scoring the day, the overall flavour was one of fun. There is little doubt in my mind that giving full vent to a bows power whilst laughing and joking with ones companions and stopping at the occasional mark for a quick snifter has to be one of the best ways to invest a day of archery. 

If you find yourself in need of information regarding medieval military weapons, techniques or tactics then these are the guys you need to be talking to. Of all the Roves I have been to this is perhaps the most authentic in terms of how shoots like this would have been done "back in the day" - a great day out and a chance to watch some truly fantastic Longbow archers strut their stuff.

I have to say that archers are some of the most generous people you will find, there isn't a week goes by that I don't hear of some club or group that are raising money for a charity or worthy cause, The Medieval Society are no different in this respect and not content with just one charity on this shoot they were supporting two !

The Mary Rose 500 is a fund raising part of the Mary Rose Trust, they are building a world leading museum to house Henry VIII’s Flagship The Mary Rose and her 19000 Tudor treasures. Due to open in 2012 this will be a truly sensational museum, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.

The Mary Rose Trust has raised £30million towards the total project cost of £35 million and are now in the final funding push. They are encouraging people to join the new crew of the Mary Rose and to raise £1million to help them achieve their final goal. 500 crew members each raise £500 - The Medieval Society has signed on as one of those crew members.

Mary Rose Appeal

More information about this can be found here


Finally, I would like to add my own thanks to John and all the Lads at The Medieval Society. I hope that this short article can help to shed some light on an organisation which doesn't seek publicity but richly deserves it.




Steve and Andy

Steve Nicholson and Andy Gilfrin, are real archers interested in the best archery suppliers have to offer. In our search for the very best bow, arrows and equipment we have shot, used and worn pretty much everything on offer.

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